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Elif Shafak: What Happens When Different Viewpoints Are Silenced?

Jul 27, 2018
Originally published on July 27, 2018 7:59 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Right to Speak.

About Elif Shafak's TED Talk

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has seen firsthand what can happen when a country restricts free speech. She says democracy depends on the right to openly exchange diverse, even oppositional, ideas.

About Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is an award-winning novelist and one of the most widely read female writers in Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English. She has published 15 books, 10 of which are novels, including The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love, and her most recent, Three Daughters of Eve. Her books have been published in 48 languages. Shafak has taught in universities in Turkey, the U.S., and the U.K., and she is currently a visiting professor at Oxford University. She is also a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and has been featured in the Financial Times, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among other publications.

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When I say freedom of speech, what does that actually mean to you? What do you - how do you define that?

ELIF SHAFAK: I think it's one of the most crucial pillars of an existing democracy.

RAZ: This is Elif Shafak. She's a writer and visiting professor at Oxford.

SHAFAK: The way I see it, for a democracy to exist and to survive and to flourish, it is not enough to have a ballot box. We definitely need rule of law, separation of powers, definitely a free and diverse media, freedom of speech - yeah? - and in addition to that, minority rights. Together with all those components, we have a healthy democracy.

RAZ: And Elif's ideas don't just come from a theoretical understanding of democracy. They actually come from her own experiences in Turkey. It's a country with a long history of restricting freedom of speech, including a recent law called Article 301, which Elif knows very well.

SHAFAK: When I published "The Bastard Of Istanbul" - one of my earlier novels - because the novel talks about Armenian genocide, I was directly put on trial under Article 301, and I was accused of insulting Turkishness, even though nobody knows what that means. Article 301 is used against individuals in Turkey if they dare to talk about some of the dark chapters of Ottoman history. You know, why shouldn't we be able to face some of the saddest moments of our history and celebrate the beauties as well? You know, why can't we take a more nuanced approach? So it's very dangerous when state elite decides what can be said, what can be written about and impose their own official version of events on a whole society.

RAZ: Elif's trial took place in 2006. She was acquitted, but over the past 10 years, the situation in Turkey has gotten even worse. The country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has consolidated power and threatened democratic institutions.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Freedom of speech on trial in Turkey...

RAZ: He's closed down newspapers and arrested hundreds of journalists.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Opposition journalists are being prosecuted in a second case...

RAZ: He's carried out purges in government, the judiciary and academia.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Almost 2,000 people who've been arrested for insulting Erdogan since...

RAZ: And he's polarized the population.

SHAFAK: And what we've seen in Turkey is this decline of the existing structure of democracy. We never had a proper democracy. It was always wobbly. It was always wounded, but it wasn't this bad. And unfortunately, as human beings, we tend to think that history always moves forward and that tomorrow's going to be much more progressive or advanced than today. But that is not the case, necessarily. And when we look at countries like Turkey, we realize that history can go backwards.

RAZ: Is Turkey a cautionary tale for, you know, other societies and countries that are starting to question the value of free speech?

SHAFAK: I think, in many ways, Turkey's a very important case study in itself. It really holds important lessons. For such a long time, many people assumed that some parts of the world, namely Western, developed countries, were safe, stable and solid lands, and the rest of the world, particularly a region such as the Middle East, these were the liquid lands. In fact, we're all living in liquid times in which we're not sure anymore of the ground beneath our feet. It doesn't feel that solid anymore. There's a lot of uncertainty.

RAZ: Elif Shafak picks up the story from the TED stage.


SHAFAK: I think our world is full of unprecedented challenges. And this comes with an emotional backlash because in the face of high-speed change, many people wish to slow down. And when there's too much unfamiliarity, people long for the familiar. And when things get too confusing, many people crave simplicity. This is a very dangerous crossroads because it's exactly where the demagogue enters into the picture. The demagogue understands how collective sentiments work and how he - it's usually a he - can benefit from them. He tells us that we all belong in our tribes. And he tells us that we will be safer if we are surrounded by sameness. And all around the world, when we look at how demagogues talk and how how they inspire movements, I think they have one unmistakable quality in common. They strongly, strongly dislike plurality. They cannot deal with multiplicity.

Adorno used to say intolerance of ambiguity is the sign of an authoritarian personality. But I ask myself, what if that same sign, that same intolerance of ambiguity, what if it's the mark of our times, of the age we're living in? Because wherever I look, I see nuances withering away. On TV shows, we have one anti-something speaker situated against the pro-something speaker, yeah? It's good ratings. It's even better if they shout at each other. Even in academia, where our intellect is supposed to be nourished, you see one atheist scholar competing with a firmly theist scholar. But it's not a real intellectual exchange because it's a clash between two certainties. So slowly and systematically, we are being denied the right to be complex.


RAZ: Coming up in just a moment - how the shift to a more polarized world is playing out on her own college campus and how all of this might have bigger implications for the future of democracy. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas about the freedom to speak, particularly on college campuses. It's a debate Elif Shafak has seen firsthand at the universities where she's taught in Turkey, in the U.S. and now in the U.K.

SHAFAK: Right now at Oxford University, it is such a heated subject, you know, these safe spaces, who should be allowed to speak. And I see this tendency - especially in the younger people on both sides of the Atlantic - to limit diversity of opinions. University campuses are such privileged places in so many ways, where we can hear so many ideas, so many voices. If we curtail voices there, I am not convinced that it's going to be to the benefit of students in the long run. I think it will be just the opposite. Just because I disagree with someone, I have no right to say that person cannot speak here. That is a very dangerous sense of righteousness. And we won't benefit from that.

RAZ: Is there any speech that you think should be curtailed or regulated?

SHAFAK: I think we should be offended less. We should be able to listen to people who have a completely different view of the world. However, I do have some red lines, indeed, because I come from - again, from a country where I have seen hate speech that incites violence, especially when hate speech targets minorities, individuals, people who are powerless. So I think we need to be careful about the kind of discourse that creates violence. But other than that, I think it's incredibly important to hear a diversity of opinions, especially on university campuses where, unfortunately, there's a lot of anxiety and maybe bitterness, resentment, anger. And it's an age in which emotions guide politics and political choices. But emotions can also misguide politics. What I see, especially in young people today, is a lot of anxiety with regards to the future.


SHAFAK: There comes the moment - it's like a tipping point or a threshold - when you get tired of feeling afraid, when you get tired of feeling anxious. And I think not only individuals but perhaps nations, too, have their own tipping points. They want to divide us into tribes. They preach certainty. And they like to incite dualities, but we are far more nuanced than that. So what can we do? I think we need to go back to the basics. The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran used to say, I learned silence from the talkative and tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind. I think it's a great motto for our times. So from populist demagogues, we will learn the indispensability of democracy. And from isolationists, we will learn the need for global solidarity. And from tribalists, we will learn the beauty of cosmopolitanism and the beauty of diversity.


RAZ: I mean, essentially what you're saying is even those voices that I find so disagreeable allow me to reflect on how much I disagree with those voices and help me, like, better sharpen my own positions and views?

SHAFAK: Yes. I sincerely believe in this life, if we're going to learn anything at all, you know, we will be learning from people who are different than us. Someone who speaks like me, who dresses up like me, who votes exactly like me is only an echo of my voice. We do not learn anything from echoes. And it's a very narcissistic existence, to be surrounded by sameness. It is possible to learn the value of democracy by looking at what's happening in the world today. Even though lots of negative things are clearly happening, maybe this is a golden moment for people who care to raise their voices. Democracy is a fragile ecosystem. It is not something you have once and for all and then you can just take it for granted. We have to work for it, together.


RAZ: Elif Shafak is a novelist. Her latest book is called "Three Daughters Of Eve." You can find all of her talks at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.